Spring reading: Here’s what to expect from authors featured at the 2021 Festival of Books

animated gif for Festival of Books April 2021
(Animation by Luke Lucas for the Times)

What a strange and what a perfect time to reconnect with books and their writers. Readers have spent a year at home, reveling in their favorite homebound activity but also longing to browse the cramped aisles of bookstores, pack into open mikes, rekindle a book club — attend a festival. As spring reasserts itself, along with hope that the final wave of COVID infection is behind us, we arrive at the cusp of one last virtual L.A. Times Festival of Books.

The writers included in this spring issue, all on festival panels or nominated for Times Book Prizes, have felt much the same way. The five L.A. poets featured here have been forced to teach and read online, celebrating street life in print rather than on foot. The importance of place is a major theme in a conversation among the finalists for the Book Prize in mystery, a roundtable that also tackles representation and writing against genre expectations. Debut authors — Carribean Fragoza, Douglas Stuart and Deesha Philyaw among them — have broken through to attention and acclaim despite canceled book tours and despite bucking societal expectations. Or maybe because of those things? Historian Martha S. Jones, author of “Vanguard,” about America’s transformational Black female activists, was relieved to skip all the “planes and trains and automobiles” and reach students directly via Zoom.

The festival will be virtual for the second year in a row, but expanded from 2020, hosting close to 150 writers over seven days beginning April 17.

March 23, 2021

Sometimes the best way to handle the grief and frustration of any year (but especially 2020) is to read books that find new ways of expressing it — like the poems in Victoria Chang’s “Obit,” which transmute her losses into verses crafted as obituaries. Or the sidewinding stories of Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, taking a funhouse mirror to the fronts put up by struggling Angelenos. Other writers have found refuge in going to extremes — Stephen Graham Jones by using horror tropes to dramatize the moral stakes of living as a Native American, Yusef Salaam by channeling his years of wrongful incarceration into an inspiring YA novel and Allan Wolf by documenting the terrors of the Donner Party.


These fascinating writers make up only a slice of the more than 100 writers slated to appear at the festival. (Find them all at But they are all experts in forging connections across books, the oldest virtual medium of them all. Read their stories and their books, sign up to see them online — and next year line up to meet them, maybe even shake their hands, in real life.


Mold-Breaking Debuts

Deesha Philyaw, the author of "The Secret Lives of Church Ladies."
Deesha Philyaw, the author of “The Secret Lives of Church Ladies.”
(Vanessa German)

Carribean Fragoza lives the life she writes — busy, creative and slightly surreal

When Carribean Fragoza was a child, she ate dirt. “Like I ate dirt a lot,” she said in a recent video interview. And her tías in Guadalajara, Mexico, really liked eating clay pots. They’d break off pieces and hand them to her “like they were chocolate.” During one of her first prenatal appointments decades later, the obstetrician asked Fragoza if she had eaten dirt as a kid. She responded delightedly: “Oh! Why yes I did, actually!” These tidbits of personal medical history “made their way into the story,” said the 39-year-old author, journalist and artist. That story is “Eat the Mouth That Feeds You.”

How ‘Shuggie Bain’ author Douglas Stuart ‘wrote without anybody else’s expectations’


Growing up in 1980s Glasgow amid a working class beaten down by Thatcherism, Shuggie Bain watches as his family becomes increasingly broke and broken; his mother Agnes’ alcoholism drags her into despair, no matter how hard poor Shuggie loves her. Oh, and Shuggie is clearly gay — even if he doesn’t understand that at first — and is endlessly bullied for it. Poverty, abandonment, violence, abuse and self-destruction may sound relentlessly grim, but Douglas Stuart, who built “Shuggie Bain” on the framework of his own life story, sees light breaking through the darkness, resilience and hope in Shuggie’s willingness to try again each day.

How an acclaimed author decided to write fiction for Black women like her

Deesha Philyaw’s short-story collection “The Secret Lives of Church Ladies” is having a moment. It’s a finalist for a Times Book Prize and won the PEN/Faulkner Award last week. But Philyaw wants to talk about other writers instead. Specifically, two writers who, like her, grew up in Jacksonville, Fla. “Not one paper in the country has picked up on the fact that three Black women from Jacksonville have the three hottest books in the country right now,” says Philyaw. “Not even the Florida Times-Union!”


Genre Games

Collage of five of 2020’s best crime writers on where mystery fiction is today.
Finalists for the Times Book Prize in mystery/thriller, from top left going clockwise: Rachel Howzell Hall, Christopher Bollen, Ivy Pochoda, Jennifer Hillier and S.A. Cosby.
(Jay L. Clendenin / LAT/Sebastien Botella/Darren Blohowiak/S.A. Cosby.)

Five of 2020’s best crime writers on where mystery fiction is today


A young queer couple runs a high-stakes con game in Venice, Italy. Black and white people in rural Virginia become uneasy allies in a heist gone wrong. A fledgling PI works a case while evading her abusive ex-husband. A child abduction in Seattle reveals fissures in a marriage that could turn fatal. Women in West Adams live in the shadow of a serial killer. While they are all very different, what unites these five novels, apart from their being shortlisted for the Times Book Prize in the mystery/thriller category, is that they are unafraid to explore difficult topics with diverse characters, unencumbered by expectations about genre.

Stephen Graham Jones would never let a dead elk or a horror trope go to waste

Back in 2007, Stephen Graham Jones went hunting and came home with a big cow elk. He made his prey a promise. “Whenever I take an animal on the field,” he says, “I tell them they’re gonna feed my family, that this wasn’t just for sport, that I’m not going to waste any of them.” But when he moved from West Texas to Colorado a few months later, Jones couldn’t take a freezer full of elk meat with him. Instead, he walked up and down his street giving it away, and for the next several years he found himself wondering if any of his neighbors discarded that meat — if he’d broken his promise to that elk after all.

L.A. is gloriously unstable ground for Sarah Shun-lien Bynum’s slippery stories

Exceptional, unique works of fiction can work as primers for themselves. “The Eriking,” the first story in the collection “Likes” has all of the elements that appear in the rest of the book. Set at a fair at a children’s school, it’s part fairy tale, thanks to a point of view that pivots from mother to daughter, who sees things through the glossy unreality of a little girl. There are also questions about representation and a setting that is definitely Los Angeles. A distant figure who seems to be a threatening boogeyman turns out to be John C. Reilly — the Oscar-nominated actor is recognizable, but not so famous you might not see him at a school event.


Poetry in a Year of Loss

 Sesshu Foster, Megan Dorame, William Archila, Yesika Salgado, and Jenise Miller.
From top left going clockwise: Sesshu Foster, Megan Dorame, William Archila, Jenise Miller and Yesika Salgado.
(Los Angeles Times photos by Gina Ferazzi / Myung Chun / Jason Armond / Dania Maxwell.)

‘How to start again’: Five L.A. poets on life beyond the pandemic

At dozens of cafes, libraries and bookstores — even a garage in Bell — Southern California teemed with poetry readings and open mike nights before COVID-19 took hold of the world. Some of these events managed to survive by migrating online. Others we’ve lost for good. Now, as an end to the pandemic appears in sight, we’ve asked five poets at very different points in their careers to reflect on the confinement and share their hopes for what lies ahead. Though disparate in background, style and subject matter, these poets share an unwavering — though not romanticized — love for the place we call home.

How grief became path-breaking poetry in Victoria Chang’s ‘Obit’

It happened before she expected it: Victoria Chang’s parents were struck by illness. First her father was debilitated by a stroke; then her mother died. She started writing down her anger, her fear, her frustration in notebooks that eventually became the poems in “Obit,” a finalist for the L.A. Times Book Prize. Their form is innovative, a thin short column down the middle of each page, playing off the traditions of a newspaper obituary. But it’s Chang’s face that appears on the book’s cover, as well as her obituary.


Surviving History

Black women voters at a polling station in Pittsburgh, 1950.
(FPG/Getty Images)

Grave injustice becomes fiction in YA from one of the exonerated Central Park Five

In 1989, Americans were shocked and horrified by a violent rape in Central Park. Unfortunately, what followed was equally horrifying but ultimately not particularly shocking: The police coerced false confessions from five Black teens, whom the prosecutors and the media then painted as depraved criminals. These days, the Central Park Five have been rechristened the Exonerated Five after a 2002 confession enabled the men to clear their names. Now one of them, Yusef Salaam, has teamed with YA author Ibi Zoboi to write “Punching the Air,” a novel in verse.

Intersectionality is nothing new for ‘Vanguard’ author Martha S. Jones

Intersectionality” may be a modern term, but the concept of identities defining one’s place in the power structure isn’t new at all. Martha S. Jones reminds us of this in “Vanguard.” Her study of the vibrant history and rich legacy of Black women working toward goals both individual and universal is a finalist for this year’s L.A. Times Book Prize in history. Her goal was to build an alternative feminist pantheon, and she was thrilled to hear Vice President Kamala Harris accept her party’s nomination by citing women named in her book — Fannie Lou Hamer, Constance Baker Motley and Mary McLeod Bethune.


The YA novel about the Donner Party you never knew you wanted

In the 1840s, a party of Midwestern migrants making their way to California became snowbound and succumbed to madness, murder and cannibalism. Ever since, many writers have tried to unravel the mysteries of the Donner Party and gotten bogged down as well, stymied by a sprawling narrative involving close to 100 characters. In “The Snow Fell Three Graves Deep,” a polyphonic novel in verse for young adults, Allan Wolf turns the story of a group of white settlers — and what he calls “their self-inflicted suffering” — into something hauntingly beautiful.